Speech by The Hon Bill Shorten MP

Aviation Access Working Group

*Check against delivery*

I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Ngambri and Ngunnawal people, and pay my respects to elders, past and present.

Today is the first meeting of the Aviation Access Working Group.

People with disability have the right to travel by air if they want to.

However the evidence that has come before me, both anecdotal and that presented in the National Aviation Policy Green Paper, shows that there are still barriers blocking their fair access to air travel.

The aim of the Working Group is to provide advice on disability access policy and the legislative framework, along with practical measures to improve access for people with disability.

Today we’ll be discussing:

  • The current regulatory framework in Australia
  • Current aviation industry policies
  • Codes of practice and service levels for people with a disability

While deregulation of the airline industry has allowed airlines to respond to market demands, which in turn have increased responsiveness to consumer needs, there are still some areas which require attention.

People with a severe disability still make up only a small minority of air travellers and it is not necessary for airlines to meet their needs to make a profit.

To improve the access people with disability have to air travel there needs to be a concerted effort from all of us, policy makers and industry to determine the best and most practical way to improve that access.

Many submissions to the National Aviation Policy Green Paper conveyed the view that people with disability have not benefited from the increased competitiveness within the industry.

The Disability Standards for Accessible Public Transport (2002) specify levels of service, measures and actions public transport operators must undertake to meet their obligations under the Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

While the review of the Standards has not yet been finalised, it appears access to air travel for people with disability has not improved since these Standards were introduced.

People with disability who need or choose to travel by air still face a range of accessibility issues not experienced by other passengers.

These blockages can occur at any stage in the process, from trying to book a ticket to getting on the flight.

They do not occur in all circumstances but they occur often enough to make people with disability feel a sense of trepidation about travelling by air, and a sense that they are “more trouble than they are worth” to airlines.

In many cases the problems seem to be arbitrary. A person who has travelled on a flight for years, suddenly finds a “change of policy” when they arrive at the airport which causes them inconvenience and discomfort.

I would receive a complaint about once a week from someone with a disability unhappy with how they have been treated.

Some of the recurring issues that are raised include:

  • Continued lack of awareness by some airline staff about how to interact in a non-demeaning manner with people with disability
  • The requirement to travel with a companion, at the additional cost of an additional ticket, when the airline deems they are not safe to travel alone
  • Difficulty accessing booking systems or the need to book well in advance when assistance is required, – this can seriously impact travel for employment that needs to be done at short notice

Take the case of a wheelchair-bound man who was asked to remove his shoes as he went through security.

He asked if his attendant carer could remove his shoes because of the difficulty and pain it took.

The security officer refused and told him “not to be a bloody sook.”

Before the situation could be resolved the man missed his flight and had to leave the airport without travelling to his destination.

Qantas said it would not allow wheelchairs to be taken on any of its 737 jets.

A wheelchair-bound man tried to book a flight to Tasmania for work, but was told that all the flights were 737s and he would need to take an alternative flight.

All the alternatives to this flight were also 737s.

Or if we look at the case of a person suffering from cerebral palsy who has been travelling to and from Melbourne for 16 years.

Airline regulations changed so there now had to be someone else with them on each flight.

The passenger said now they have to pay for second ticket so “if the plane goes down they can die with me.”

They asked to be able to sign a legal waiver stating they would not sue if something went wrong when the passenger travelled unassisted, but this was refused.

I could list other cases, but the general point is clear. These examples showed a lack of flexibility, courtesy and most of all a lack of respect for people with a disability.

Industry participants, many of whom are represented on this Working Group, need to apply their existing knowledge and learn from each other to improve access to air travel for people with disability.

The knowledge held by the airlines and other airport service providers is also valuable in working with Government regulators in formulating new policies and revising the existing regulatory framework.

By working with regulators such as the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA), the Australian Human Rights Commission, and the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government, access to air travel can be improved for people with disability while maintaining Australia’s enviable air safety record.

If we look at examples from overseas, particularly Europe and Canada, it appears that other countries have moved ahead of us in the way they support people with disability who want to travel by air.

Not all the measures tried overseas will be practical or appropriate for Australia, but we need to look at what has worked in other countries.

This Working Group will assist in providing a better channel of communication between airlines, airports, government agencies and people with disability to work through the complex operational issues which affect the quality of service offered to people with disability.